The Sunday Times: Money, energy and cunning, the US’s new Cold War armoury

Photo: Blair Fraser

Photo: Blair Fraser

MORE THAN 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s annexation and despoilment campaign. It is not as though the EU and the US have looked the other way during this bloodshed; it’s just that every attempt to engage or contain Russia has so far ended in failure.

Does Russia’s dismantling of Ukraine mean that the Cold War has resumed after a 25-year hiatus? Or is it a new Cold War with America? Or a neo-Cold War against liberal democracies, or a frozen conflict with Nato, or just a regional conflict within the old Soviet bloc?

The reason the categorisation is so important is that the naming of the crisis brings with it a set of ideological and practical responses.

The term “Cold War” carries the unmistakeable baggage of an existential conflict between irreconcilable systems of government. It implies that democracy itself is once again on trial for its life. This is all rather unfortunate timing considering that the major democracies are still reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and in many cases have yet to prove themselves capable of restoring public confidence or fiscal order.

It’s no wonder, then, that last July President Barack Obama explicitly stated that the escalation of American sanctions against Russia were in response “to a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognise that Ukraine can chart its own path”. It was, he said, “not a new Cold War”. It is, however, exactly that, and there is no point pretending otherwise.

The previous Cold War was enacted on a vast scale between two leviathans, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. As any reader of John le Carré or Len Deighton knows, behind the nuclear threat of the Cold War was also an elaborate ballet between the two super-powers. Interpreting what the signals meant and how to respond was, literally, half the battle. Today, though, there is no playbook (except, possibly, for poker) since President Vladimir Putin has just one strategy, which is to go all-in every time.

In some ways Putin has no choice. Russia is many things, but with an economy that is eight times smaller than that of the US — and 16 times smaller than America’s and the EU’s combined — it is merely a (declining) regional power among several.

Russia does, however, have extraordinary leverage in Europe because of its oil and gas. Some 30% of Europe’s energy supply comes from Russia, but in the vulnerable countries such as Bulgaria it is 90%. It’s a potent weapon Putin uses regularly, often without warning and in ways that are initially hard to detect — from economic blackmail and devastating cyberattacks to fomenting internal strife.

Indeed, unlike the first Cold War, when ideology really mattered, this war is about money and power. Whatever else Putin is holding out to the disaffected, disgruntled or just plain devious regimes of the world, it isn’t a resurgence of Marxist-Leninist philosophy. The best he can offer is a smorgasbord of authoritarian practices dressed up to look like a defence of conservative values. His agenda of personalised power combined with nationalism, religion, state-fostered bigotry and the consolidation of crony capitalism, is very attractive to authoritarian narcissists such as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Russia’s “friends” are the illiberal democracies and outright autocracies who hope that Putin will sufficiently demoralise the West into dropping any interference in defence of universal values.

One of the most talked-about panels at the Munich security conference this month was entitled: “Who is ready for hybrid war?” The conference coincided with a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that warned of Nato’s lack of preparedness to confront the kind of hybrid warfare that is now Russia’s speciality. Using the three Ps — provocation, propaganda and prevarication — Putin has been able to surprise and confuse his adversaries. He is especially adept at exploiting divisions between western allies to buy time while he further destabilises his targets.

Hybrid war — the use of non-military measures to supplement or supplant conventional warfare — is particularly effective when deployed by countries that don’t feel constrained by international law or moral norms. But just because the West is having to devise new strategies to confront the deployment of soft power for hard ends, it doesn’t follow that liberal democracy is incapable of defending itself.

Despite numerous claims that democracy is in decline, it all depends on what sort of time frame is being used. It’s true that there has been some slippage since 2006, but in 1941 there were only 11 democracies compared with 100-plus today. But far more important than whether some of the newer democracies can sustain the necessary civil institutions in the long term is what can be done to negate the effects of a regime that is deliberately trying to undermine democratic values.

The answer lies in the West’s ability to turn Russia’s methods against itself. Whether it’s providing alternative supplies of energy to the gas-starved countries or countering Russian blackmail with stronger sanctions, there is a range of “hybrid” tools at the West’s disposal. While it’s true that Putin has become the paymaster for rogue, anti-capitalist and extremist groups, there is also nothing to stop the West from supporting its own like-minded groups.

As for propaganda, the recent appointment of Rick Stengel, the former editor of Time magazine, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, suggests that the White House has finally grasped that the international media war with Russia requires a media expert to lead it.

The West is richer, larger and stronger than Russia. It can certainly outspend Putin, and it can outwit him, too. But to do this it needs strong leadership. Given its energy independence from Russia, that leadership has to come from the US. As long as the world’s sole superpower remembers that it is one, liberal democracy has nothing to fear from an expansionist kleptocracy such as Russia.

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